As such, on Thursday, Jan. 19, the Florida Humanities Council presents the second talk in a two-year series, Not in My Backyard: Do We Really Support Historic Preservation?
The free event is open to the public (with food from the Vinoy) and begins at 6 p.m. at the Snell Isle Sunset Ballroom, 600 Snell Isle Blvd. Area historians Gary Mormino and Ray Arsenault will provide historical background on preservation in the area, and share some of their many stories (they really love to tell stories) from the past. Also, St. Augustine’s Department of Heritage Tourism expert Dana St. Claire will speak on the nation’s oldest city and its rocky road with preservation. “Sunken Gardens was nothing more than a sinkhole,” says USF St. Petersburg professor and historian Mormino. That was before George Turner and his wife set up the garden in 1903. Exposed limestone was covered in orchids. Turner’s wife made guava punch for guests. Cities across Florida soon had gardens with exotic plants and specialty fruit juices for tourists.
“It was a more innocent world where nature was enough,” Mormino says. “Orchids were exotic, but now you have orchids on plates of Thai food like a parsley garnish.” Then in 1971 that damn mouse and his castle moved in, changing the game in Florida forever.
“Disney came in and people didn’t dawdle like before,” Mormino says. Tourists didn’t like roads like the Tamiami Trail anymore. They were headed to Disney, and the Interstate took them there faster and without traffic lights. Because Florida’s population is made up of more transplants than natives, there are fewer ties that bind when it comes to historic buildings.
“We lost La Plaza Theatre, the Florida Theatre and the Soreno,” Mormino said. In a previous interview with fellow USF St. Petersburg professor and historian Arsenault, he detailed how the historic hotel in Downtown St. Petersburg was blown up by developers. Mormino remembers standing with Arsenault watching the hotel crumble.
“The Soreno was a watershed event where people said to themselves, ‘Never again,’” Mormino said. In a “compromise” with the city, developers promised the demolition was slated to appear in Lethal Weapon 3. The demolition was filmed but only made it into the end credits.
“It is hard to resist what the business community deems progress,” Mormino says.
But St. Petersburg is doing better and the recession could be partially responsible. The hipster mecca known as the 600 Block wouldn’t have existed had it not been for a slowing economy and tanking real estate sales. Condos would be where the Crislip Arcade and numerous art galleries now stand.
“St. Petersburg does things well when it comes to re-adapting,” Mormino says, noting the revival of the Crislip Arcade. His wife, Lynn, helped with the cleanup after St. Petersburg City Councilmember Leslie Curran helped move the deal forward. “The Palladium, too, it was an old Christian Science church.”
On the cusp of the demolition of the Pier, it seems historic preservation is on the minds of many. “New residents like historic architecture and most people hate modern architecture,” Mormino says. “Neo-Berlin, it's so austere and just seems to blend together. Old buildings make you feel good.”
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